Man rescues rabbit from wildfire as evacuations expand in Southern California

Motorists on Highway 101 watch flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. As many as five fires have closed highways, schools and museums, shut down production of TV series and cast a hazardous haze over the region. About 200,000 people were under evacuation orders. No deaths and only a few injuries were reported. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

VENTURA, Calif. (AP) — An unlikely hero emerged from the smoke and flames of the Southern California wildfires. A man risked his own life to save a wild bunny rabbit from the Thomas fire along Highway 1 in La Conchita.

The rescue was recorded by a news photographer Wednesday night.

The man, who did not want to be identified, saw the rabbit run across traffic and into the burning brush. He jumped out of his car to chase the critter and appeared to be growing anxious, pacing and jumping up and down.

After several attempts, he coaxed it away from the brush, gently picked it up and held the bunny in his arms to keep it from running back into the flames

The video has lifted the hearts of people in California and across the country as the wildfire danger grows.

Authorities closed a major freeway Thursday as flames from the largest and most destructive fire jumped lanes and churned toward coastal and mountain communities northwest of Los Angeles as crews kept an eye on unpredictable winds.

A more favorable wind forecast still called for potentially dangerous gusts, but ones not likely to approach historic levels forecasters had feared, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is good news for the fire crews as the winds will not be driven quite as vigorously,” a weather service statement said.

Calmer overnight conditions helped crews protect the Ventura County resort town of Ojai (OH’hi), where most of the 7,000 residents were under new evacuation orders following a big burst of wind late Wednesday. Evacuations were also ordered for the first time in Santa Barbara County, where the coastal city of Carpinteria was under threat.

Officials closed U.S. 101 for more than a dozen miles along the coast, cutting off a major route between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for several hours as fire charred heavy brush along lanes.

Southern California has been hit hard by four major fires that have put tens of thousands of people under evacuation orders and destroyed nearly 200 homes and buildings, a figure that is almost certain to grow.

Millions of cellphones buzzed loudly Wednesday night from San Diego to Santa Barbara with a sound that usually means an Amber Alert, but this time meant a rare weather warning for strong winds making extreme fire danger.

Officials hope the electronic push will keep the region alert and the death toll from the week’s fires at zero.

Melissa Rosenzweig, 47, was briefly back home Wednesday after evacuating from her Ventura house, which has been spared so far while most on her street had burned in the largest and most destructive of the region’s fires. She and her husband were about to evacuate again, hoping they will get lucky twice as the new winds arrive.

“Heck yeah I’m still worried,” Rosenzweig said. “We’re very grateful but I know we’re not out of the woods.”

A mansion that survived a wildfire sits on a hilltop in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. A dangerous new wildfire erupted in the tony Bel Air area of Los Angeles early Wednesday as firefighters battled three other destructive blazes across Southern California. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In what may have been an early sign of the 140-square-mile fire getting new life, several thousand new evacuations were ordered Wednesday night in Ojai, a town of artists and resorts. The blaze had been creeping there already, but an increase in winds pushed it close enough for many more to flee.

Wild winds could easily send make new fires explode too, as one did Wednesday in Los Angeles’ exclusive Bel-Air section, where a fire consumed multimillion-dollar houses that give the rich and famous sweeping views of Los Angeles.

Little flame was visible by late Tuesday, but Wednesday, fire exploded on the steep slopes of Sepulveda Pass, closing a section of heavily traveled Interstate 405 and destroying four homes.

Flames burned a wine storage shed at media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 16-acre (6.5-hectare) Moraga Vineyards estate and appeared to have damaged about 7 acres (2.8 hectares) of vines, a spokeswoman said.

Across the wide I-405 freeway from the fire, the Getty Center art complex was closed to protect its collection from smoke damage. Many schools across Los Angeles were closed because of poor air quality and classes were canceled at 265 schools Thursday.

Back in the beachside city of Ventura, the fire killed more than two dozen horses at a stable and had destroyed at least 150 structures, a number that was expected to get far bigger as firefighters are able to assess losses.

Air tankers that had been grounded much of the week because of high winds flew on Wednesday, dropping flame retardant. Firefighters rushed to attack the fires before winds picked up again.

“We’re basically in an urban firefight in Ventura, where if you can keep that house from burning, you might be able to slow the fire down,” said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior specialist at the blaze. “But that’s about it.”